Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Kensington student’s book creates buzz on air pollution

Six-foot-tall structure to make its way to Capitol Hill this week

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In a way, James Coan is writing the book on how to solve air pollution.

The Princeton University sophomore has come up with a plan to improve air quality and reduce pollution.

In order to get others on board, he has created a 6-foot-tall book that he has taken around the county and will soon take to Capitol Hill to collect signatures from supporters.

‘‘I hope people see I’m not just some guy with a big book,” said the 20-year-old Kensington native on Thursday. ‘‘I hope people see there’s some intellectual weight behind this.”

Coan decided to make the book as a way to attract people’s interest in his plan to reduce air pollution by limiting the amount of coal that companies can burn for energy and to collect their signatures in support.

Last week, he took the book on the road to sites in Bethesda and Rockville to talk to passersby and get signatures. This week, he plans to take it to Congress.

More than 100 people signed the book in two and a half hours in Bethesda on July 14, and more showed their support for Coan’s plan to reduce the pollution caused by coal plants.

Burning coal could become the cheapest way to make electricity, he said, but without limits and regulations, it would cause a lot of air pollution and emit tons of gasses that could lead to global warming.

But Coan’s not just keeping the book in Montgomery County. He arranged to bring the book to Capitol Hill on Thursday for members of Congress to sign and learn about his method to keep pollution under control in the future.

His plan, a cap and trade program, would set a limit or cap on the amount of a pollutant that can be emitted. Companies accumulate credits for their low emissions and can sell them to companies that have higher-than-allowed emissions.

In essence, he said, companies are punished for violating the cap while others see more profit because they have low emissions. Coal, he said, is the cheapest product to make fuel and could be the most widely used if the country limits its dependence on foreign energy sources like oil.

‘‘We’re going to need electricity, but if it comes from dirty sources like coal it’s going to hurt the environment,” he said.

At least one local legislator committed to signing the book.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington, said it’s rare to see 20-year-old constituents making policy suggestions.

‘‘There are not a lot out there,” he said Tuesday morning. ‘‘I commend him for his initiative, also for his creative approach. I do think [the book] draws greater attention to an important issue.”

Van Hollen said a similar program exists today that limits sulfur dioxide emissions to prevent acid rain.

A bill was introduced recently that would start a cap and trade program on coal emissions, and Van Hollen said he expected Congress to act on that bill later this year or early next year.

Coan’s policy writing experience stems from his membership in the Roosevelt Institute, a think-tank for college students with chapters in universities across the country.

His ideas were published in a book printed by the Institute along with dozens of other students’ policy ideas on how to limit global warming.

Five of Coan’s 11 ideas relating to setting energy regulations were published in ‘‘25 Ideas for Solving the Energy Crisis” after the spring 2007 semester.

The so-called student think tank also published ‘‘25 Ideas for Working Families in America” and ‘‘25 Ideas for Socio-Economic Diversity in Higher Education” with policy ideas that came from the collegiate members.

As an intern this summer for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group, Coan wanted to see if his cap and trade program was of interest to citizens and lawmakers alike.

But discussing public policy with people on the street isn’t an easy task, and Coan said his 6-foot-tall book seems to solve that problem.

‘‘We have people coming up to ask about cap and trade programs or to say it’s so cool,” Coan said. ‘‘It’s a good way to show that people care about this issue.”

It took him and friends Joe Batwinis, a 2005 Walter Johnson High School graduate, and Tian Shen, a 2007 Walter Johnson alumnus, a few days to build the wood covers and bind large pages inside.

Shen painted a scenic landscape on the green cover, and a promise to support the reduction of harmful emissions is on the inside cover.

That’s the basic promise people agree to support when signing the book, Coan said, and then the more curious individuals take time to learn about his specific plan.

For the last three weeks, he has e-mailed and called congressional representatives and asked for their support and even a signature when he hits the Capitol.

A 2005 Walter Johnson High School graduate, Coan’s interest in global warming and getting people’s attention started when he was a sophomore at the Bethesda school.

He entered a competition to design an environmentally friendly car with aspirations of being an engineer after college.

During the project, he found a special interest in alternative power sources like fuel cells while designing his car of tomorrow. His mother, Suzanne Coan, said that’s when she noticed a change from engineering to environmental concerns.

‘‘He went from the cars to fuel cells, that led to oil, which led to what he’s doing now,” she said.

The future of the book and signatures hasn’t been determined yet, he said. Coan is still deciding if he will contact each signer’s Congressional representative or if he will use the signatures to support a future bit of policy he would write.

‘‘Maybe someone in Princeton will keep it on display,” he said. ‘‘I hope the basement isn’t its final resting place.”